Barbaric vs. Barbarous

By Mark Nichol

What’s the difference between barbaric and barbarous? The terms are nearly interchangeable, though for two connotations, one term is preferred over the other.

Barbaric or barbarous behavior or other characteristics are those that suggest a cultural attainment between savagery and civilization. These adjectives also refer to unrestrained actions or those a civilized person would consider primitive, strange, or uncouth.

Barbaric, however, is more appropriate in the sense of cruelty or harshness, while barbarous more strongly implies unsophisticated behavior. Barbarian, the noun form, is also used as an adjective.

The origin of these terms is the Latin word barbaria, meaning “foreign country”; this meaning derives from the Greek term barbaros, meaning “foreign” or “strange.” Ultimately, it likely stems from the idea that utterances in unfamiliar languages sound like meaningless babble and can be recorded as something close to “bar-bar.” (Babble and blabber may be related to barbarian.)

Latin usage referred to anyone outside the cultural influence of the Roman Empire, and later connotation of barbarian implied someone who does not speak one’s language; these senses, still later, extended to identify any ill-mannered person.

The name Barbara shares this etymology, with the appealing sense of “exotic” rather than the unattractive one of “strange”; a saint by that name prompted its popularity among Christians.

The root of the proper noun Barbary, which referred to the lands along the north coast of Africa, is of disputed origin. It derives from Berber, an Arabic term for the inhabitants of North Africa outside Egypt, which might have a local origin, might stem from Arabic (with the same sense of “babbler”), or might be borrowed from Greek.

Barber is unrelated to these words and names; it stems from the Latin term barba, meaning “beard.” That word itself is probably cognate with barber through a common ancestor word.

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1 Response to “Barbaric vs. Barbarous”

  • Tamora

    This is actually an important little tip. You’d be surprised at how many people think the two words are completely interchangeable. They are not.

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